SpaceX SN8 prototype crashes in fireball after a partly-successful high-altitude test flight

After acing lift-off and mid-flight manoeuvres, SN8 crashed and exploded during its landing attempt because it wasn't slow enough to touch the ground.

In a high-altitude test of its Raptor engine, SpaceX's interplanetary rocket in-development Starship, crashed in a fiery explosion during the test launch in Texas on Wednesday, 9 December. Even as the prototype was incinerated, it didn't seem to dampen the spirits of SpaceX, inspired by its founder and CEO Elon Musk, who was delighted by the results of the flight. Employees of SpaceX were upbeat till the end of the livestream, even displaying an on-screen message that said, "Awesome Test. Congratulations Starship Team!"

Musk tweeted moments after the flight, explaining that the velocity of Starship's landing caused the crash. The rest of the test went as planned, he added, including take-off, the change of position in flight and its (pre-explosion) precise landing trajectory.

"Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!" Musk tweeted this evening.

"Mars, here we come!!" Elon Musk said in his tweet. "We got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team."

The giant, shiny stainless steel spacecraft lifted off from the launchpad at 5.45 pm EST (10.45 pm GMT) from SpaceX's facility near Boca Chica, Texas. In the high-altitude test of the SN8 prototype, the spacecraft was to climb 12.5 kilometres into the sky, complete a complex manoeuvre mid-air to simulate the manoeuvres a fully-developed Starship might perform as it returns to Earth on operational flights, and land safely in a designated launch platform on the ground.

After the SN8 spacecraft successfully reached the highest altitude in its climb, six minutes and 42 seconds into its flight, it started falling, as planned, tipping over in a controlled glide back to Earth. But as it approached the ground, SN8 made corrections to its orientation and fired three Raptor engines to slow its velocity. But the spacecraft crashed and exploded in an attempt to land because it wasn't slow enough to touch the ground. Instead, it blew up in a fiery explosion that left a cloud of smoke rising over the test site.

A partial success

As per a report, Musk was not expecting a complete, end-to-end success of the high-altitude test, which packed in more complexity and variables than any other Starship prototype test of SpaceX's so far. He had reportedly given SN8 prototype a 33 percent chance of landing in one piece. The earlier altitude record of the spacecraft was about 150 m (500 feet) – a test that three Starship prototypes passed, including the Starhopper, SN5 and SN6.

All said and done, the high-altitude test was still a part-success, and an advancement in SpaceX’s efforts to further its 'interplanetary' goals. The final, operational Starship rocket, standing 120 metres tall, is designed to carry humans and 90 tonnes of cargo to the moon and Mars. It is SpaceX and Elon Musk's answer to a futuristic, fully-reusable launch vehicle that can make space travel affordable.

Also read: 'Mars is looking real': SpaceX's Starship prototype SN5 aces key 'hop' towards interplanetary travel

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